Copyright © MJ Kobernus 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.
Any resemblance to real persons, living, dead or immortal is purely coincidental.
MJ Kobernus asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this book.
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Any copyrighted material is reproduced under the fair use doctrine.
The cover art is the work of Ashraf E. Shalaby.
Published by Nordland Publishing 2015
Hunted follows on directly the events that take place in Salvage. You can read this as a standalone story, but do yourself and favour and go back and get Salvage, if you do not already have it.
In honour of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to helping mankind achieve its destiny. One day, the stars.
A note from the Author
Hunted is the second instalment of a series of short stories. These are ‘teasers’, if you will, for the grand novel, The Predecessors, that will one day emerge from my fevered imagination. But don’t worry, these are not spoilers since they take place before the action of the novel begins.
The next instalment is The Orb.
Palsenz Planetary System
Someone was moaning. The sound registered slowly as First Officer Stephanie Chu regained consciousness. It took a moment more before she realized she was making the noise herself. She tried to move but gave up, gasping, the pain in her head timed perfectly with her heartbeat, each pulse a needle in her brain.
Her eyes were sealed shut by something sticky. Raising a hand, she wiped at the substance until she could finally open them, but the cabin lights were out. What was this stuff? She probed her head gently, grimacing in pain when she found a ragged gash.
The crackling blue arc of an electrical short punctuated the dark. Other senses awoke, the acrid stench of burning plastic assaulted her nose. Panicked, she tried to sit up, pushing against the straps that held her. Hopefully the automatic systems had managed to take care of the fire. But what the hell had happened? She fell back into her chair.
Then the memories came flooding back. The mission to assess the Argoss, the attack on the salvage crew, their escape and the proximity mine that had taken out the drive.
The salvage team had gone aboard the abandoned Argoss and then . . . Pål! Her hand reached out for the control panel, desperately feeling for the correct switch. She triggered the cockpit lights and they illuminated, sending shockwaves of pain through her cranium. Blinking rapidly, she turned to examine her partner. Captain Pål Knutsen was strapped into his chair beside her. His chest rose and fell in a regular rhythm and she breathed a sigh of relief to see him alive. They had been together since training; the shuttle Heimdal, and its captain, were her world. Hitting the release on her chair straps, she climbed to her feet on uncertain, weak legs.
The planet’s gravity was higher than the spin in the gen-pop sphere of the Endurance. Used to spending much of her time in zero-g, now she felt heavy, clumsy.
With one hand always touching a bulkhead or handhold, she moved to Pål, feeling for a pulse at his neck. It was there, strong, steady. Good, he would be fine. She bent and laid her head next to his, giving him the briefest of hugs, then turned and made her way through the narrow hatch into the central fuselage, crawling slowly where usually she would fly. It was pitch-black but she palmed a switch and the fuselage lights flickered into brightness, illuminating the large hold.
Strapped to the starboard bulkhead were three bodies. Two tech-engs from the Endurance and one of them; one of the things that had attacked the salvage team. It was hairless and smooth, dark skinned. Its head was small, its mouth wide with a bank of needle-like teeth.
The creature’s stick thin arms and legs articulated in odd ways. It was barely recognizable as human. But she had seen its eyes. There was no mistaking what it was, what it had been.
Of the five arcs that had set out from Earth, only the Bitter Sea and Endurance had made it to the distant world that would be their new home. Or so it was believed. When they had arrived in the Palsenz system, there was jubilation at the discovery of the Argoss III in a geostationary orbit around the only Kepler-classified Super-Earth Planetoid. Clearly the great arc’s autopilot still functioned, which meant that other autonomous systems were online too. A good sign. The Argoss would be a tremendous boost to the colonization effort and a salvage team, led by Officer First Class Jensen, had been assigned to assess its condition.
While the Endurance performed a remote survey of their new home, Chu and Knutsen were ordered to transport Jensen and his team, dock with the Argoss and gain access. The salvage team were to assess the damage to drive and control systems and report on the Argoss’ crew, if any. They quickly found that there were no survivors, but most incredibly, Jensen’s team also discovered that the radiation burst that had wiped them out centuries before had been initiated by the bridge crew. They had evidently committed mass suicide. Why they would do that became apparent when the salvage team was attacked. Jensen had led the survivors back to the airlock where the shuttle was docked, and Chu had gone into the Argoss to defend the position, killing a number of the creatures herself.
It had not occurred to Chu that the mutants could get inside the shuttle. That was when they lost the two tech-engs, until the thing was brought down by Jensen.
When Pål performed an emergency evac from the Argoss, she had thought they were finally safe. Except the mutants fired proximity mines into their path. They had been designed for clearing asteroids, but proved just as deadly to the shuttle, knocking out the main drive, leaving the ship helpless. The next thing Stephanie knew, they were dirt-side and she was waking up with the mother of all headaches.
A mumbled cursing caused her to spin around. The only survivor from the salvage team was struggling with the strapping that had kept him safe during their forced landing. One arm had been gashed open by the mutant before it was killed, but that did not appear to be bleeding anymore. Even so, Jensen looked pale.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re safe.”
“Where are we? What happened?” He coughed and blood flecked his lip.
“We’re on Palsenz. Somewhere in the Badlands, I think.”
He snorted in dry amusement. “You and I have different understandings of the word safe.”
She nodded at the sentiment. It perfectly mirrored her own thoughts. Although Palsenz supported a meager biodiversity, the Badlands were different. Even from orbit, the Endurance’s sensors detected strange readings from the region.
“We’re lucky to be alive,” she said. Jensen nodded but looked unconvinced. Unspoken was the thought that although they had avoided the frying pan, they might well be in the fire, as the Badlands comprised a large area of blasted rock and desert with no life and bizarre topography.
But Stephanie Chu counted her blessings. If they had crashed on any other planet in the system, they would be dead. The gas giant was a raging storm of hydrochloric acid and the rest ranged from impossibly high gravity to tiny, airless rocks. Not the best place for a forced landing. At least Palsenz had air.
“Here,” she said. “Let me help you.”
She pulled the strapping free, and Jensen collapsed into her arms, grimacing.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” he gasped. “My ribs . . .”
He stood straighter as he got used to the gravity. “I’m okay, really.”
“Good. There’s a medkit on the bulkhead there,” she pointed to a box fixed to the wall. “I need to check on the captain.”
As Jensen opened the medkit, Stephanie crawled into the cockpit. Pål was still out, but unbelievably he was snoring. Typical! She gently shook his shoulder. Then harder. “Pål.”
“What?” His eyes blinked opened, after a moment focusing on her. “Damn, you look a mess.”
Stephanie chuckled. Her hand went to her long black hair, matted with blood. Usually it needed careful control to stop it from floating all over the place, but now it hung lank and sticky against her scalp. No doubt she looked bad, but that was the least of their problems.
“I should take a look at that cut on your head.”
“No, it’s okay. Check the comms, please Pål. We need an evac off this rock.”
“You sure? It looks nasty.”
“It’s not bleeding anymore.” She gently touched her scalp, then winced. It was not life threatening. It could wait.
Knutsen hit the strap release on his chair and sat up straight. He did not look any the worse for having survived the forced landing. Stephanie felt a momentary irritation at that. His blonde Nordic locks were not even mussed.
“Assuming that the Endurance is in range now,” he said, hands reaching out to flick switches, “it will take a couple of hours at least before another shuttle can reach us.”
He donned his headset. “This is the shuttle Heimdal. Endurance, do you read?”
No signal. He tried again, then threw off his headset. His sigh told Stephanie everything she needed to know. Instantly she turned and hit a switch marked EPIRB. It was old tech but it would broadcast their position for as long as the ship had power. The Endurance might not be in range for some hours yet, but they could just sit tight and wait for pickup. She thanked her ancestors that the Heimdal had held together, coming down in one piece. It might even be salvageable. Whether it was testimony to Pål’s skill as a pilot or divine intervention was moot. She would light a joss stick once they were out of this mess.
“How’s Jensen?” Knutsen asked, with a nod towards the hold.
“Broken rib, looks like,” Stephanie replied. “Might have pierced a lung. Not good.”
Knutsen levered himself out of his chair with a grunt and flexed his shoulders. “The gravity is higher than I expected.”
“It’s only a little more than Earth normal. We’ve been running on three quarters gee for too long.”
Knutsen shrugged noncommittally and crawled through the hatch into the fuselage. Stephanie followed and clambered down into the hold. Knutsen stopped in shock at the sight of the mutant and the two dead crewmen, hanging limp from the wall.
“What the hell is that?”
Jensen had used some of the strapping to wrap around his chest. He was pulling it tight, wincing with the pain. Stephanie stepped forward, helping him tie it off. He had evidently come to the same conclusion as she had; broken ribs. Knutsen glanced in his direction, giving him a quick once over, before returning his gaze to the mutant.
“You going to be okay, Jensen?”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“These things attacked you?” he asked, nodding towards the alien. “Unprovoked?”
“We didn’t even know they were there until they started killing us.”
Knutsen shook his head in wonder. The Argoss was known to have had a major tech failure, but to find out that it had been caused deliberately made sense only if the mutants had posed a serious threat to the mission. The captain may have reasoned that it was better to preserve the arc for the other colonists, than let it fall prey to the mutated crew. If every living thing on board was killed, then the ship would arrive at its final destination and wait there, hale and whole until the other arcs arrived. And this was just what had happened. Except the mutants had evidently survived.
From the cockpit, a shrill siren sounded. With a nod, Knutsen ordered Chu to check it out. Stephanie crawled back into the cockpit. Almost immediately she was back, her face drained of its natural color.
“Pål! You’d better get in here, now.”
Knutsen crawled back into the cockpit. Stephanie pointed to a series of readouts on the port side of his station where the lights had changed from green to yellow. The drive was not dead. It was going critical.
His eyes widened at the sight, but he wasted no time trying to reverse the problem. There was no fix for this. He leaned in towards Stephanie, speaking loudly in order to be heard over the incessant siren.
“Get everything out that we can carry. We need to make it to the minimum safe zone. I don’t know how much time we’ve got, but I’m not taking any chances.”
Stephanie nodded, pulling a medkit from a bulkhead. She made her way into the hold where she punched in the code to open the weapons locker. Knutsen followed, pushing two emergency kits with him. The kits contained basic field rations for three days, a small amount of water and foil blankets.
Stephanie slung the heavy multigun—the same she had used to defend the airlock against the mutants—over her shoulder. It was designed to be used in any situation and could be configured for a variety of lethal and non-lethal payloads. She checked to ensure that it was set to High-Charge, a killing level.
Through either luck, or judgment on Knutsen’s part, the shuttle had come to rest on its belly. The airlock should be the easiest exit but a quick glance through the porthole showed only the fine red sand of Palsenz covering the tempered glass. The hatch was clearly buried.
That left only one way out, the payload doors. Stephanie hit the release mechanism, then punched in her authorization code. With a groan, the ceiling began to split, widening as the overhead hatches opened outwards like the ribs of a great beast, splayed to reveal the tender organs within.
Instantly a fierce wind carried sand into the bay, whipping around in a frenzied gyre. Stephanie turned to Jensen who was helping himself to a multigun.
“We need to get as far away from the shuttle as we can. The drive is overloading. Take this medkit and start climbing.”
She passed him the medical supplies and pointed to the far end of the bay where handholds set into the bulkheads formed a ladder. Jensen nodded, slinging the rifle over one shoulder and medkit over the other. He made his way past his dead crew and the mutant, giving the latter a slightly wider berth, then began to climb, head turned to the side to avoid the stinging sand.
Stephanie watched Jensen climb, noting how he struggled to raise his right arm. Not good. Knutsen appeared at her shoulder and she jumped.
“Hell, you gave me a start.”
His answering look held no apology. He just pushed her towards the ladder. She understood. No time to waste on pleasantries. She scaled the ladder quickly, climbing out, turning her head from the caustic wind and the tiny sand grains needling her face.
She slid down the fuselage, onto the stubby wing of the shuttle, then jumped, landing next to Jensen. The jolt when she hit the ground almost knocked the wind out of her. Nevertheless, she slapped Jensen on the shoulder and tried her best to give him a smile.
“Congratulations, Officer Jensen. You’re the first man to set foot on Palsenz.”
He nodded, but did not look like he appreciated the distinction as he was trying to shield his eyes from the sand. Equally, Stephanie did not feel anything special for being the first woman on the planet. If they survived, maybe then.
A moment later and Knutsen joined them. They set off, making their way through twisted rocks that coiled and spired at odd angles, many of the fingers of stone ending in points, like granite daggers. Care was needed. A fall here could be deadly.
The wind howled, almost drowning out her voice. Nevertheless, Stephanie attempted to shout above it. “How far to be safe?”
Knutsen strained to hear. He grimaced as he worked out the meaning of the almost jumbled words that came to him.
“At least three kilometers,” he shouted in reply, holding up three fingers.
Stephanie nodded and leaned into the wind, pushing hard to make progress. It would have been smarter to go the opposite direction where the wind would help propel them, but the almost sheer wall of stone that lay there contradicted that instinct. Had the shuttle changed its angle of descent by just a tiny margin, they would have impacted the cliff face, and that would have been that.
They began their trek away from the shuttle. After some time, Stephanie found she could walk naturally, no longer needing to lean into the wind. She checked her wrist display, measuring their progress. Barely two klicks. That was not far enough!
They pushed on. Finally, a break in the wind allowed them to observe their surroundings in more detail. With the sand no longer menacing her eyes, Stephanie raised her head. There was a rocky outcrop nearby and she quickly clambered up before turning to survey the horizon, marveling at the vista of an alien planet. Home.
What she saw was a bleak, forbidding landscape of rolling red sand dunes and oddly striated rocks that rose from the ground like bony fingers. It was like a garden of stone, she thought.
She turned to look back the way they had come. Already their footprints had been erased and the shuttle was no longer in sight. She felt a pang of regret for its loss. She and Pål Knutsen had been assigned to the Heimdal as cadets and it had practically been home to them. Like many co-workers, they had taken their relationship to another level, becoming lovers. It was common for those who worked in close proximity to marry and have children. Any stigma that had once existed had long since disappeared within their insular culture where perpetuating the species was more important than outmoded social mores. Of course, this did not mean that there was not a chain of command. Stephanie was First Officer on the Heimdal, but it was Pål who had made Captain. That meant his word was law, even here, on the planet’s surface.
“Our first priority is to get out of the blast zone, which I believe we have done. Next is shelter. I think these sand storms might get rough.”
Jensen smiled grimly at that. “Not much shelter here, by the looks of things.”
“No,” Knutsen conceded. “We’ll just have to keep moving and hope we get lucky.”
From her vantage point, Stephanie could see further than the others. Her brows furrowed. “I can see something.” She pointed to the east. The others turned to look. “Something glinted. Like a reflection off glass.”
“Must be wreckage from the Heimdal,” Knutsen asserted.
“No,” she replied. “Not that far east. It doesn’t match our approach vector. There’s no way there could be anything from the wreck there.”
Stephanie continued to peer into the distance, but there was nothing except endless sand. Then suddenly she saw it again. A glint, and it was gone. Could it be a reflection from binoculars? She hopped down from the mound, landing in a crouch, and opened her mouth to speak.
They felt the explosion before they heard it. The ground heaved, throwing them down, Jensen’s face contorting in pain. The horizon behind them flared into white. Then it darkened as a huge cloud of sand rose into the sky, consuming it, clouding out the sun. Then came the wind, howling, tearing at them, ripping their clothes with wave after wave of jagged sand.
Stephanie covered her head with her hands and screwed her eyes tightly closed. Then as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.
They climbed to their feet, dusting themselves off, shaking sand from hair and clothes. Jensen spat, saliva and blood instantly absorbed by the desert. For a moment, no one spoke.
“I’m sorry,” said Knutsen. It was not clear if he was addressing the shuttle, his crew or their passenger. Stephanie laid a hand on his arm.
“Pål, before the explosion . . .” she paused to formulate the right words in her head. “I saw something. It looked to me like someone was using binoculars out there.”
Captain Knutsen twisted his mouth in a wry grimace and shook his head. “Couldn’t be. There’s no way a rescue party would be here so soon.”
Stephanie held his gaze, her brown eyes holding his blue. “I know. That’s what worries me.”
He turned to look in the direction where she had seen the flash of light. “You don’t think . . .”
“I don’t know what to think. But something is coming this way.”
Jensen looked at them, his gaze alternating from one to the other. He seemed to be having problems breathing but he managed to spit out a single word.
Stephanie bit her bottom lip. “If it’s not a rescue, then either they’re indigenous, or it’s them. From the Argoss. The mutants.”
Jensen laughed nervously, until he realized she wasn’t joking. “You can’t be serious!”
Knutsen nodded. “Makes sense. There were shuttles missing from the hull of the Argoss. We just assumed they were destroyed or lost during the journey. Maybe those things used them to make landfall.”
Stephanie unslung her multigun, holding it in combat ready position. “If that’s true, then we need to get as far away from them as possible. I don’t plan to die on this rock.”
Knutsen spat sand and wiped his mouth. “Agreed. Let’s move out.”
They set off, walking as quickly as they could in the shifting sand. Changing direction to the west, they used whatever rocks they could find for cover, trying to make it as hard as possible to be seen by whatever was coming. Thankfully, it appeared that there would be little chance of anyone following their footprints, as the wind started to pick up again and they were soon erased.
Jensen stumbled and Knutsen moved to help, wrapping one of the man’s arms over his shoulder. Supporting half his weight, Knutsen urged him on.
The day ended abruptly as the sun sank below the horizon. Darkness was not absolute, as the evening sky was awash with stars. Palsenz’ own tiny moon appeared as a bright dot, moving over the surface of the night.
Exhaustion brought the group to a halt soon enough, and they huddled in the lee of an overhanging rock that was not quite a cave, though it did provide some protection from the wind.
Stephanie rolled a head-sized rock into the half circle of their shelter. Then she fired her multigun with a low power setting at it. She held a continuous beam on the stone until it began to glow white-hot.
That done, they shared some rations and sat back, the heat radiating from the rock suffusing them with more than just its warmth. It comforted them, made them feel somehow less vulnerable.
Jensen carefully maneuvered himself into a supine position. His breathing was ragged, and he had a waxy complexion to this skin. Stephanie put two fingers on his neck.
“Relax. I just want to check your pulse.”
Jensen gave the barest of nods. His pulse was fast. She did not need to time it to know he was experiencing problems. Plus he felt hot. There was a thermometer in the medkit and she fished it out, pressing it against his neck. A moment later it beeped. 103 degrees. He was burning up.
She poked about in the medkit bag and found a strip of pills marked ‘General Antibiotic.’ She examined the instructions, then popped two out. She passed Jensen a bottle of water and the pills.
“We’ll need to keep a watch during the night,” said Knutsen.
Jensen struggled to raise himself, but Stephanie pushed him back down. “No. Not you. You’re on meds, have a damaged lung and a fever. We’ll manage.”
Knutsen nodded approvingly. “Steph, I’m pretty wiped. Can you take the first two hours, then wake me?”
“Absolutely. Don’t worry. I’ll keep the rock hot.”
Stephanie didn’t wake Knutsen at the appointed time. Instead, she took a walk, making her way to a high point of jutting stone a short distance from the camp. She climbed it, then settled in, wedged between two twisting spires. From her position she could see the sleeping men, the heat rock still glowing a faint red. But she could also see the wider plain, and even though it was night, there was sufficient light to make out the nearby rocks and dunes.
She snapped open the sight-port on the multigun and lifted it to her eye. Scanning the horizon, focusing on the east, she searched for any sign of movement. Nothing. Switching to infrared, she tried again.
The desert was an even tone of yellow with patches here and there of darker umber, indicating warmer sand. But there was nothing ‘hot’ out there. Stephanie let out her breath, unaware she had been holding it. Whatever had been trying to track them was gone.
She grinned and was about to jump down when some instinct made her look again. This time she scanned the area much closer to their camp, less than a klick distant. And there it was, something moving, registering as a brilliant red blob in her gun sights. Then another and another. Three high heat sources slowly converging on the location of the overhang under which Knutsen and Jensen lay sleeping.
Her stomach clenched, and without thought she thumbed the safety off the multigun, aiming at the nearest of the heat sources. Whatever it was, it was only 300 meters away. She fired.
The shot missed, impacting a dune, creating a spectacular heat rose in the infrared spectrum. She switched to night vision, and what she saw almost made her freeze rigid with shock. A mutant, much like the ones she had seen on the Argoss and Heimdal, with the strangely articulating limbs and smaller head. But this one was still recognizably human. It crouched low, turning to look towards the other creatures it travelled with. They scuttled away, as if aware they were suddenly visible and in danger. In a moment they were all gone, hidden behind rocks or dunes.
But now they would be more careful. She mentally berated herself for missing her target. With a snarl of rage, she hopped down and hurried back to the camp. She kicked hard at Knutsen’s foot, then Jensen’s. Knutsen was on his feet in a second, but Jensen merely moaned.
“What is it? What happened?” Knutsen checked his wrist display. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Never mind. They found us,” Stephanie replied. She had her back to them, the multigun raised high, scanning the area in case the enemy returned. “I saw three mutants coming directly towards the camp. I don’t know how, but they can track us. We need to keep moving.”
Knutsen nodded curtly, then knelt beside the comatose Jensen, checking his vitals.
“He’s not looking good.” He gently peeled back an eyelid, using a light from his wrist display to check Jensen’s pupil response.
“He’s unconscious, not sleeping.”
“Then you’ll have to carry him,” Stephanie replied. “I’ll take point.” She grabbed up the second multigun, slinging it across her back, then a medkit. Knutsen donned the remaining emergency kits, then with a grunt, bent and lifted Jensen across his shoulders. He staggered to his feet.
Stephanie gave him a sympathetic look. “We need to circle back to the crash site. That’s the first place any rescue team would look to find us.”
Knutsen gave the merest of grunts. He took a step, then another. His face was locked into a determined grimace. Stephanie led the way, switching between infrared and night vision while sweeping the area ahead and behind. Now they knew for sure what they were facing, their only hope of survival was to hide. Superior firepower would only work for so long, and the Ancestors alone knew how many of the damned creatures were on the surface.
As they made their way, Knutsen occasionally stumbled so Stephanie had to catch him. It was obvious that he was growing tired. Attempting to distract him, she described what she had seen.
“It’s as though there were two species,” she said. “The one I saw appeared almost human. It had a larger head and I’m sure it had normal feet. It was definitely different to the ones on the Argoss.”
Knutsen did not answer. It was all he could do to move in the heavier gravity with Jensen’s weight and his own. Stephanie continued.
“Also, they reacted immediately to the fact that I could hit them with a charge. The mutants on the arc did not seem to care. They attacked with a ferocity that seemed . . . well, I think it bordered on madness. But these others, they displayed caution. Which makes me think they’re smarter. Or simply not insane. Either way, it makes them more dangerous.”
Knutsen grunted. Each step he took was a deliberate action, requiring focus and concentration. After only a short while, he was sweating. Slowly he lowered Jensen to the sand.
“Need to rest,” he gasped out.
Stephanie kept up her scanning, switching between modes on the sights. There had been no other sign of the creatures since she had fired on them, but they were still out there. She could feel it in her gut.
“We’re not more than 3 klicks from the wreckage of the shuttle. We can take 10 minute breaks in every 30. Think you can manage that, Pål?”
He looked up at her and she was shocked at the exhaustion written into every line on his face. She put a hand on his shoulder, giving him a squeeze.
Sunrise on Palsenz came slower than they were used to. On the Endurance, a day was split into divisions of fourteen hours of daylight and ten of night. Daylight was simulated by a plasma ball suspended in the middle of the sphere. As a result, the sun was always overhead no matter where you were. At night, however, it was shielded, creating the illusion of a regular day. It had long since been set to emulate the approximate timings that they would find on Palsenz itself, in order to acclimate the colonists.
Stephanie watched the orb of the sun rising over the horizon with her mouth hanging open. It was unlike anything she had imagined. Her whole life had been a preparation for the moment they arrived and claimed their new home, but now she realized that their existence on the Endurance had been a mere reflection of reality. And a poor one at that.
They were now less than a klick to the crater left by the Heimdal. Fragments of the shuttle littered the ground around them. Pieces impossible to identify, twisted and burned. She felt regret and loss. It had almost been their home, they had spent so much time in it. On the plus side, the debris would make it easier for a rescue team to find them.
Stephanie took a good look around, doing a 360 degree turn. Nothing. But from the corner of her eye, she thought that maybe she could see something. Snapping her head back, she focused on a nearby dune, only a hundred meters distant. She put the gun sight to her eye, but there was no movement there now, and no indication that there had been anything. She was jumpy, that was it. Just her nerves getting frayed.
As she was turning back she saw it again. This time there was no mistaking it. The small head, the thin limbs; mutant. One, then another and another. The three that had been tracking them. They raised themselves, standing as tall as they were able, clearly wanting to be seen. Stephanie swallowed dryly, wishing she had not already finished the last of her water ration.
Why did they just stand there?
“Pål. They’re here.”
She indicated the dune with the mutants. Knutsen looked up from his burden, seeing them. His eyes widened with shock, then closed in dismay.
“We’ll have to fight.” He stared about himself, obviously hoping for a defensible position. The shuttle explosion had left a crater and they were on its edge. Either they moved towards the mutants, or they moved further into the crater.
To Stephanie, the footing looked treacherous, with jagged shards of metal protruding from the sand. But mercifully, there seemed to be a narrow path free of any major obstacles, and it led directly to a large piece of the Heimdal’s hull.
“We go down,” she said.
That piece of the hull would give them cover, acting as a shield. Knutsen glanced to the crater, assessing, then nodded. As he made his painful way to the crater’s epicenter, Stephanie held back, her eyes never leaving the dune and its three very visible occupants.
But why were they just standing there? What were they doing? It was almost as if they wanted her to look at them. To distract her!
She whirled around but it was too late. Pål was already too far away. She saw the sand erupting before him, two mutants emerging from a hidden trapdoor. They grabbed at his legs, pulling him down. Before she could even call out they were gone.
She shrieked as despair and anger filled her. Turning back to the mutants on the dune, she raised the multigun, but they too were gone. With nothing to vent her rage on, she ran down to where she had seen Pål and Jensen disappear. Yet no matter how hard she searched, she could find no sign of the trapdoor. The sand seemed undisturbed. She fell to her knees, a strangled scream escaping her raw throat.
When she looked up again, the three mutants were almost on her. One of them had blue-grey eyes, almost like Pål’s. But the stunted faces and smaller heads with wide mouths sent a surge of adrenalin through her as well as a sense of certainty. With Pål gone there was nothing left. Raising her gun, she pointed it at her own head, then reached for the firing stud.
The closest mutant reacted. Its eyes opened wide and it raised a hand as if to order her to stop, to desist. Then she heard it. The distinctive roar of a class III shuttle making an atmospheric landing. The whining of the drive as the attitude jets kicked in was unmistakable.
She was rescued. They were here! Unable to believe her senses, Stephanie Chu looked up just as the shuttle began a near-vertical descent. The pilot was skilled, no doubt. One of her colleagues from Endurance, most likely Chang. She felt the briefest sense of justification. She had made it. Even if she died now, it did not matter. The rescue had come.
She looked to the mutants, but they did not appear concerned. One was covering his face from the onslaught of wind and sand, but the others kept their eyes locked on hers. None made any attempt to flee.
Incredulous she stared at them. Slowly she turned her gun around, once again assuming a combat stance. The shuttle landed behind her. She could hear the airlock opening. She smiled, grimly triumphant.
“You should run.”
The mutants did not react, merely observing her with calm equanimity. Stephanie waved the gun. “GET AWAY!”
Someone behind her spoke. The voice was accented, but understandable. It was not anyone from the Endurance. Could it be a shuttle from the Bitter Sea?
“I am the Speaker. We will not hurt you.”
Small, oddly jointed hands reached out. Stephanie turned and stared in wide-eyed horror. Mutants were emerging from the shuttle. One stood directly beside her. In an instant she was disarmed. One of the three unclipped the gun-strap, relieving her of her heavy multigun. Another took the one slung across her back.
A strangled noise emerged from her throat as she tried to speak. Unable to comprehend what was happening, she sank to her knees. Finally, she found her voice.
“Why? Why did you attack us? On the Argoss?”
The mutant named Speaker looked at her and for a moment Stephanie thought that she could see sadness within its eyes.
“We are not like those poor wretches on the arc. They are our great shame. We have abandoned them. The Argoss is their home and this planet is ours.”
Stephanie struggled to get to her feet, but found her legs too weak. Clawed hands reached out to help. Speaker looked up at her as she stood, taller than him by a full head. Up close she found the mutants not quite so repellant. But they had a strange smell, like dried leather. Speaker addressed her again.
“Your kind are our ancestors. Those on the Argoss are our close cousins. But they are not like us. We cannot live with them, so we gave them the Argoss. But this planet is ours. If your people are to live here, then an agreement must be reached.”
Stephanie looked over to the shuttle. It looked exactly the same as the Heimdal, and for a moment she believed it was her ship, that this was all a bad dream. But the strange creature before her belied that.
“We set out from Earth to colonize this planet,” she said. “This is our home.”
“No. It is ours. We got here first. But your kind will be allowed to settle. There will be an agreement about boundaries, possibly trade. We will keep your crew members as surety until we have concluded negotiations with your leaders. Your people are quite safe. The injured one is being treated by our physicians. He will recover.”
At this news, Stephanie felt her strength abandon her and she almost collapsed. Pål was alive! She took a deep breath, composing herself.
“What makes you think we can reach an agreement on sharing the planet?”
A curious coughing sound emerged from the mutant. It took a moment for Stephanie to realize that it was laughing.
“You have no choice. We have mastered the secrets of the Predecessors, the species whose planet this once was. We have had a long time to understand their heritage. Your kind will be allowed to settle on this planet but knowledge of the Predecessors will be denied. Come.”
Speaker led her to the shuttle. Once aboard, it quickly launched. Inside there were two crew members, plus Speaker and his retinue. Stephanie watched with professional interest as the crew operated the vessel within the atmosphere. That was a skill more art than science. The pilots knew what they were doing.
“We will deliver you back to the Endurance.” He passed her a communicator. “With this we shall forge our agreement.”
Stephanie felt her head swimming. It was too much, too fast. But a thought occurred, nagging. They were so certain, so assured!
“What if we cannot come to terms?” Once again she thought she saw sadness in the creature’s eyes as Speaker looked up at her.
“Then you will have to leave this system.” He turned his back to her, watching on a vid screen as the great bulbous shape of the Endurance appeared. “Either that, or we will be forced to destroy you utterly. Palsenz is ours.”
Thank you for reading this story. If you enjoyed it, I urge you to leave a review. In this modern age, reviews are the lifeblood of the writer. Also, you might like to check out the next instalment of the series, Hunted.
About the author
MJ Kobernus lives in a small town in Norway with his wife and youngest daughter. He is the self-proclaimed inventor of Flash Philosophy as well as the founder of Nordland Publishing. An ardent motorcycle enthusiast, he has been likened to a bear on a tricycle, a comparison he has taken to heart. He has a keen interest in the metaphysical. Ask him about it. Go on, I dare you.
MJ Kobernus is the author of the Guardian series, which you can find on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and pretty much any of the many outlets where you use a mouse to navigate.
The Guardian – Blood in the Sand
The Guardian – Blood in the Snow
The Guardian – Blood in the Fire
You can visit MJ at:
Following directly on from the events in Salvage, the crew of the Shuttle Heimdal face a whole new series of ordeals. Forced to make an emergency landing on Palsenz, they discover they are in the infamous Badlands, but, worst of all, they are being hunted by the same things that had infested the Argoss III. With nothing between them and certain death other than their cunning, can Stephanie Chu keep them alive long enough to be rescued?